We often hear the aphorism "Good is the enemy of Great". The idea is that the pursuit of perfection should take precedence over creating a Good-enough product. Interestingly this idea has deep relevance while discussing social justice and inequity. For e.g. if you have 1 lakh rupees and a 1000 students to educate, how would you allocate the money?. Would you spend the money "fairly" i.e. allocate Rs 100 per student and thus end up achieving 100% mediocrity or go the other extreme of creating a single "super star" by giving all the money to the best student in the pack?.
India seems to have taken the latter path when it created a handful of Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs) that have ended up garnering the lion's share of the education grants. Students compete in a brutal entrance exam with a success rate of less than 1%. The government then lavishes precious money on these "chosen ones" by subsidizing their education, equipment and hostel fees. The irony is that after four years of engineering, the chosen ones pack their bags and migrate to the greener pastures of the West.
The elitist approach also has the drawback that it relies on an arbitrary system to pick the super stars. Should analytical skills be prized over leadership and other soft skills?. For the sake of argument, let us assume that hard skills make an engineer. Even then would a 4 hour exam be able to gauge a candidate's analytical skills perfectly?. Aren't you measuring what a person knows at the time of taking the exam versus what a person would be able to learn and achieve in future?. Do you think that there is any measurable difference in caliber between the person who barely scraped through versus the next one who barely failed the test?.
The optimal resource allocation sweet spot lies somewhere between the socialist and elitist extrema. Thus while developing human resources, we should try to nurture the Good-enough instead of single tracking on the Great. We see a similar malaise affecting America where corporations and the country itself placing all their bets on "visionary" CEOs and Messiahs from nowhere. By sharing the resources across a wider swathe of the population, we also end up spreading the risks.
How do you counter the criticism that this would lead to a less meritocratic society?. I would like to point out the example of high school calculus. Since calculus is a required course in Indian high schools, almost all the students are familiar with the basics of integration and differentiation by the time they finish school. Contrast this with the US education system, where only the best students are allowed to take Advanced Placement ("AP") courses to study calculus. One of my favorite past times is visiting relatives in the US and hear them gushing about how little Johnny is a "genius" as he has mastered the dark art of calculus. So is little Johnny any smarter than the middling Indian high schooler whose feats in calculus remain under-appreciated by parents and teachers alike?.
I think it is a crime to arbitrarily deny opportunities and exposure to the Good-enough majority in favor of the microscopic Great minority.